Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Sad Meltdown of Greenpeace

by Alexander Cockburn

on this topic
In the first decade of its existence, after its founding in 1971, Greenpeace achieved a political impact and a measure of popular admiration and support that radical groups can only dream of. The Greenpeace troops struck a chord precisely because they refused to compromise, stated their aims with theatrical flair and saw environmental causes as intimately linked to issues of social justice. This, remember, was a time when Richard Nixon was deftly exploiting the new environmental movement as a way of trying to isolate radical opponents of the war in Vietnam.

Greenpeace's first cause was one that linked the environment with jobs and the cause of peace. It tried to stop U.S. nuclear testing in the Aleutians by sending boats loaded with Greenpeace warriors out into the test zone. The aim was not only to halt testing but also to save jobs in one of the world's most productive fisheries.

This sort of courageous direct action became Greenpeace's signature, as its boats took on whaling ships, oil platforms in the North Atlantic and, most famously, the French Navy guarding a nuclear test site in the South Pacific. In 1985, the French government, headed by Socialist Francois Mitterrand, sent its commandos to plant the bomb on Rainbow Warrior that killed a photographer, Fernando Pereira.

That event prompted an extraordinary wave of money and members for Greenpeace. Membership in the United States soared, and revenues were further enhanced by the $20 million in compensation paid by the French government. Alas, that money carried its own time bomb, one deadly to the organization. The flush of money was malignantly transformative. Greenpeace executives found it increasingly hard to resist the status games and insider policy that millions in the bank tend to breed.

There were still capable leaders. Under Peter Bahouth, Greenpeace tried to widen its focus. The Rainbow Warrior II went to Portland, Ore., in the early '90s to protest log exports. It was a good issue, but Greenpeace's commitment did not last long.

Greenpeace's pretension to being a grass-roots organization became increasingly hollow. It had been a stroke of genius to deploy canvassers in major American cities; a Greenpeace canvasser in, say, Boston, became a familiar sight. The political opportunities were great. The canvasser, getting to know the neighborhood, could raise specific issues and generate a couple of hundred calls to a state or U.S. representative the following day.

But there was a fatal flaw. The canvassers, foot soldiers in a great national moment, had no role in forming policies of the group they were working for. They truly were, in Paul Watson's bitter gibe, the Avon ladies of the environmental movement. A canvasser with no input easily became a canvasser with cynicism and with temptation, all too often unresisted, to steal the money and blow it on cocaine, as happened in cities such as Seattle.

Another foolish decision was to bring in policy wonks like Cliff Curtis, who could just as easily have worked for the Wilderness Society or any other employer of the green bureaucrats in Washington, savoring their micro-brews at Jake's on M Street. It was Curtis who drove Greenpeace first to announce that it had no official position on the killing of marine mammals and second -- even more stupid -- to help draft and lobby for the "dolphin death bill." This was the legislation (now passed in a somewhat adulterated form) promoted by the Clinton administration to resurrect methods of dolphin killing outlawed in 1988.

When Greenpeace's members learned what was afoot, thousands turned in their membership cards. Setback turned into rout when the Earth Island Institute, leading the pro-dolphin forces, took out full-page ads denouncing Greenpeace's role in cities where Greenpeace was running canvass operations. The canvassers were met with rude rebuffs at many a front door, often from furious children who had previously worked to ban the sale of dolphin-lethal tuna.

Greenpeace is now in a state of meltdown. Its revenues are half what they were only a couple of years ago. It is suffering a $2.6 million deficit, and it is only halfway through the fiscal year. The response of the Greenpeace high command is compelling exhibit of the group's political corruption. The supposed solution to crisis is to shut down all 10 regional offices and retreat to a bunker inside the Washington Beltway, thus losing any remaining contact with the real world of environmental politics. The group has now chosen to adopt as its primary campaign the somewhat impalpable issue of global warming, an issue dear to policy wonks, which has none of the resonance with ordinary folk that made Greenpeace's fortunes a generation ago.

If Greenpeace thinks the only way to save itself is to shut down its sole links to real people -- the canvass and the regional offices -- then it might as well shut down altogether. There is of course a radical constituency out there today, exactly the same constituency that Greenpeace so brilliantly captured in the '70s and '80s. People are as angry now as they were then. How could they not be? Greenpeace went from fanning that rage in politically useful ways to telling people to calm down and accept "complex trade-offs." As predicted here over a year ago, Conoco is sinking oil shafts in the Clinton-created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Greenpeace should be there, chaining itself to the oil rig.

Instead, it's in Washington, playing the politics that made those oil rigs possible. In the meantime, many angry people have rightly given up on Greenpeace and put their money into groups that will work for them, like Earth Island. Throw those Greenpeace mailers in the trash.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor October 20, 1997 (

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